In Europe's Museums, Rhino Horns Are Easy Pickings

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Georges Gobet / AFP / Getty Images

Brussels' Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences is on the list of European museums targeted by thieves in search of rhino horn

Under normal circumstances, the Portuguese police who inspected the luggage of two Australian nationals on Sept. 2 would surely have been surprised by the odd-shaped objects they found. After all, the items inside the suitcases of the 63-year-old man and his 31-year-old son, who were waiting to board a flight to Paris, were hardly your ordinary souvenirs. But thanks to a burgeoning plague of similar crimes in Europe, police knew that antique rhinoceros-horn theft is becoming all too common, and that the two men, now in Portuguese custody, are only the latest perpetrators of the crime.

The international trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1993, but the poaching of live rhinoceros, an endangered species indigenous to Asia and Africa, has been rising over the past several years. And recently thieves have discovered that they don't need to make the trek to the game farms and savannahs of South Africa to get hold of some illicit horns — all they have to do is visit Europe's natural-history museums and auction houses, whose musty collections often contain a fair number of the sought-after objects. According to Europol, there have been at least 40 thefts or attempted thefts of rhino horn from European museums since January. "Criminals have learned that these places give them easy access to something very valuable," says Europol spokesperson Soren Pedersen.

That value stems from the horns' use in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine, as well as a growing trend among the two country's upper classes to simply display them as prestigious trophies. Historically, in China rhino horn was mixed with herbs and used to treat fevers and other infections, though according to Lixin Huang, president of the San Francisco–based American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, that use has faded since the U.N.'s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the sale of rhino horn. "For the past 18 years, you will not find it in any certified hospitals, doctors, medical schools or textbooks practicing traditional Chinese medicine," says Huang.

Huang adds that traditional Chinese practitioners never used the horn to treat cancer. "In 2,000 years' worth of literature, you don't see a single reference to this use," she says. But that belief, which appears to have arisen a few years ago in Vietnam, has prompted an unprecedented demand for the substance in the two countries. "It started about four or five years ago," says Richard Thomas, spokesman for Traffic, a London-based organization that monitors the international wildlife trade. "Because of this belief that it can cure cancer, we've seen live poachings in South Africa rise from just 12 five years ago to 333 in 2010. The museums just provide an additional source."

Just how easily rhinoceros horn can be obtained in Europe was recently made clear to Kristian Wolter, who works for the Gothenburg Museum of Natural History in Sweden. Ten minutes after the museum had opened on the morning of July 23, an alarm from one of the emergency exits rang out. "It was then that we discovered that the horn on our stuffed rhinoceros had been sawed off," Wolter says. "It seems that one man entered the museum normally and then let his friends, with the tools, in through the back door. They put the horn in a sack and ran out through the emergency exit."

Small museums in Belgium, France, Italy and Germany have also been recently hit. Rosie, a stuffed rhinoceros who is the star exhibit at the Ipswich museum in the U.K., lost her horn to saw-wielding thieves on July 28, and thieves walked off with a horn on display in the Drusillas zoo in Sussex, England, on Aug. 31. Thieves were somewhat less lucky with the horn stolen from the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire, England; although the thieves managed to rip the horns from two specimens and safely escape with them, the artifacts turned out to be worthless. Warned by Europol and the British police about the rash of thefts, the museum had swapped the real horns for replicas.

Regardless of its origin or age, an authentic horn can fetch anywhere from $34,500 to $275,000 (depending on size), an amount that has apparently made the objects — which are made of compressed hair — irresistible to organized crime. In fact, Europol believes that many of the thefts have been carried out by a single Irish gang.

That appears to be the case with the two men arrested in Portugal last week. Although the horns recovered were not the ones stolen from Portugal's University of Coimbra earlier this summer, the arrests have provided police with a lead. "There is evidence that these men have a connection to the University thefts, and that they have some connection to the Irish organized-crime group that has carried out other robberies," says Carlos Dias, criminal-investigation coordinator for Coimbra's police.

Europol spokesman Pedersen says he believes that police efforts to warn museums of the threat is having an effect, and he points to one private collector who, informed of the danger, thwarted a theft by refusing to allow an Irish buyer, whom he found suspicious, into his home. But he also acknowledges that, given the benefits, thieves will continue to seek out sources for their rhino-horn supply. "These museum thefts," he says, "they're just another example of how creative criminals can be when it comes to making money."